Goin’ back: JF’s Memory Time Machine
By John Firminger
Continuing with our look back at the mixed fortunes of British rocker Terry Dene, we look at the more positive side, namely his recorded work.
As a vocalist he had managed to copy some of the vocal style he’d heard by a young singer from Tupelo, Mississippi. This may have been as a result of him working as a record packer at HMV’s pressing plant, where one of the new releases was by the new strangely- named American Elvis Presley.
Through his job, Terry was probably one of the first people to hear the unique singing style of the young singer who was starting to cause such a stir in the music world. The influence is evident on Terry’s own recordings, adopting a similar kind of slur in his vocal delivery. This is evident on his 1957 recording Come And Get It. With Decca studio swamped in echo, Terry delivers a commercial piece of rockabilly which he sings with great authority.
His early output did, of course, include some more worthy cover versions not to be overlooked. Included on Decca Records’1957 EP ‘Rockin’ At The Two I’s’ he’s featured on an impressive version of Baby, She’s Gone, a moody rocker originally recorded by Canadian rocker Jack Scott. Despite the drummer playing a military march throughout, Terry’s version is most impressive. As he growls out “shake it”, session guitarist Roy Plummer does his best to keep up the momentum. Also on the same Extended Player, Terry gets to grips with This Is The Night another un-inhibited piece of rockabilly that American singer Bob Luman can be seen performing in the cult rock’n’roll film ‘Carnival Rock’. Indeed Terry’s version certainly does it proud.
Typical of the era though, Decca had saddled Terry with the Malcolm Lockyer group and singers who did their best to try and create some kind of rock’n’roll feel, albeit fairly half-baked. Indeed, what Terry really should have been allowed to do was record a session similar to Billy Fury’s highly-rated ‘Sound Of Fury’ album. That would really have shown where Terry was coming from.
While he was able to turn out some pretty cool rockers, Terry also had the talent to temper some of his singing style and come up with highly-commercial recordings as with his initial hit A White Sports Coat.
As things were back then, a number of singers were faced with competition from other versions of a song they’d recorded. On the song Stairway Of Love, another US hit by Marty Robbins, Terry had to contend with Michael Holiday’s ‘homely’ version and Alma Cogan’s ‘bubbly’ rendition. For me it was Terry’s cut of the song, despite the typically-British accompaniment, that had the most appeal. With a slight edge in his vocal, his version had that little bit more rock’n’roll credibility, something he certainly understood more than his two competitors.
However, such was the song’s general appeal that all three versions enjoyed some chart success, a phenomena that also applied to a number of other songs in the late 50s. (Story Of My Life, Singing The Blues, Wake Up Little Susie, Volare, etc.).
Another EP release entitled ‘London Rock’, saw Terry share the honours with Tommy Steele and was featured on the swingin’ big band rocker Who Baby, Who, and another decent cover version, this time of the Gene Vincent rocker Pretty Pearly.
A less rockin’ track is Lover, Lover from 1958, with its bright and breezy arrangement, clangin’ bell, vocal backing and slightly banal lyrics. This could well have been an ideal entry for the Eurovision Song Contest!
Another oddity is The Man In The Phone Booth from 1957, which begins with Terry as ‘the man’ talking to the telephone operator as he’s trying to get through to his chick. The song itself is quite a cool, bluesy piece with sparse accompaniment from a small group and is, in fact, quite a decent track.
Another of Terry’s hit covers was “Start Movin’”, the slinky laid- back rocker that had been a US hit for actor/singer Sal Mineo. Once again, Terry gave it just the right approach with a cool, unobtrusive arrangement and an Elvis-style voca,l which certainly does the song more justice than Mineo’s out-of-tune original.
Seven Steps To Love was a powerful rock ballad on which Terry delivers another fine vocal. Maybe the powers-that-be were trying to mould him in that direction, and another similarity with Billy Fury?
From 1959, There’s No Fool Like A Young Fool is another quite listenable piece of pop-rock and is maybe a little similar to some of Ricky Nelson’s recordings. Another highly-credible offering is Terry’s 1959 version of Brook Benton’s Thank You Pretty Baby, reflecting some of the more quality material he had to record. Another example was his atmospheric version of Fever, and every bit as good as Peggy Lee’s or Elvis’s version. At the other end of the ladder is Teenage Dream”, a pretty banal piece on which Terry is subjected to backing vocals that sound like a bunch of chimpanzees!
Also compared to some of his other competitors, Terry certainly had the edge when it came to performing live. Exposed to other names from across the Atlantic, as a young rock’n’roller, Terry included songs by Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis in his live shows, performing them with great conviction as seen whenever he appeared on Six Five Special or on tour.
While his career was going through some pretty erratic times, Terry’s reputation as a singer was maintained through his other recordings. Following his stint with Decca, Terry signed with the independent label Oriole, with whom his recording of Geraldine features possibly one of his best vocal performances.
In the ensuing years, Terry has continued to record, all of which have re-instated him as the great British rocker that he is. Away, from white sports coats, candy floss and stairways, when it comes to rockin’, it’s what Terry does best. Providing a superb overview of his recording career is the Roller Coaster CD, Terry Dene – Good Rockin’ Tonight (Roll 2018). The set includes several early recordings, most convincing pieces of rockabilly; some recordings from the 60s and 70s, plus Terry’s rendition of other classics; Mystery Train, Blue Suede Shoes, That’s Alright, Good Rockin’ Tonight, with some of his other now rare recordings; Baby She’s Gone, Lock and Chain, Market Place, The Feminine Look and Fever. His album from 2007 ‘The Best Of Terry Dene’ features our man performing some of his favourites, including a blinding version of “Mystery Train”. As the track shows, Terry still has plenty of rock’n’roll in him and is in fine vocal shape.
Also worth checking out is his cool version of the Jerry Lee rocker Put Me Down. Thankfully, much of Terry’s music can also be heard again on the wonderful YouTube, so: ‘Come and get it’.